The Observational Fun of Arkham Knight

So, as a person perennially behind the times, I finally picked up a copy of Batman: Arkham Knight (probably the only open world game I’ve played in a while). And, surprisingly or not, I actually like it! But not for the reasons you think.

Arkham Knight

Yes, the big selling point, back-of-box feature, or what have you, is probably the Batmobile. Functionally, the vehicle acts like a tank through city streets…which is to say, it destroys pretty much everything in its path. I can understand why Rocksteady made the Batmobile so darn heavy and difficult to control, since it handles LIKE A TANK (gotta get that pun in their somewhere), but boy does it ever become annoying for the purpose of traversal. I think the reason why Batmobile traversal turns into a chore fairly quickly comes from the camera controls, which don’t really lock onto the massive death weapon on wheels so much as they rotate around it. The direction of steering, still manipulated by the left analog stick, just doesn’t match up with the camera, and that’s super disorienting. Cue frustration with ramming into a wall right at the beginning of an escort mission. Sigh. I’d rather fly around Gotham, thanks.

I understand why those weird Batmobile decisions came to fruition, though – the Batmobile combat sequences basically require a free-form camera to function at all. And they’re actually pretty engaging, at least as engaging as a game with such varied mechanics can be. By holding the L1 (on PS4, anyway), the Batmobile transforms into an assault weapon capable of destroying lots and lots of people and drone tanks with “nonlethal” weaponry. You can move in any direction when in this mode, which complements the camera well. As well, any worries about being hit by projectiles you can’t see immediately dissipates when you can see lines of fire and missile launches due to very clear indicators (storywise, I imagine we explain this via Batman’s suit or the Batmobile’s radar, but I honestly don’t care either way). All said, these sequences are a lot of fun, especially when Hard mode requires you to not get hit much, if at all!

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Destroying is fun.

That’s something I found sorely lacking from the other Arkham games so far – challenge. And Arkham Knight does a lot that fixes these issues right from the get go. No longer can Batman take a shotgun blast to the face in a Predator segment. You actually need to be stealthy and quick, avoiding detection or risking enemy fire. Upgrades to the suit don’t really make it much easier, which certainly ups the ante and makes you consider other options on the giant upgrade wheel. Same goes for the hand-to-hand combat sequences, among other things.

But, none of these really explain why Arkham Knight works so much better than Asylum or City (or Origins, if you count that). Part of it comes down to presentation, because this is one of the most amazing games I’ve ever actually looked at and played. There’s so much attention to detail, especially with the rain and weather effects, that it freaks me out a little! I would not consider myself a big comic book fan, and yet this game remains engaging to me on story and whatnot (despite the predictability of it – the Arkham Knight is clearly a former associate of Batman, probably a former Robin or something since he’s a dude).

Rather, the cool parts come in the strangely fitting puzzle and adventure game elements thrown into the mix. I mean, on some level, Batman’s just a more physically capable Sherlock Holmes, a detective who solves puzzles, so the Riddler turns out to provide some of the most enjoyable content in the entire game. Solve this weird physics puzzle! Use the Batmobile to pull this pulley in the most convoluted, Rube Goldberg-type way possible! Solve this puzzle with numbers or pipes or whatever! When I describe it, I imagine most people would call this rather droll, but I found it immensely enjoyable just to observe and figure things out. Bonus points (for your brain) if you turn the hints off!

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From where I’m standing, Arkham Knight seems to fix a lot of the problems that adventure games, at least the ones that I’ve played so far, always stick you with: lots of weird logic puzzles with no actual rhyme, reason, or whatever until enough time passes in your brain. I understand the contemplative nature of said games, but there’s something to be said for puzzles that take a while, but not too long, to solve. Batman has to condense this formula into what’s essentially an action game with myriad different game mechanics that serve the whole, but these moments stood out to me more than any other. They offer a clear objective and don’t hold your hand – both things that are hard to convey! And yet, I don’t feel lost so much as I feel a desire to actually solve the puzzle! That takes some skill, I think, and Rocksteady has done a tremendous job making it compelling beyond solving something for its own sake. We might say that’s also helped by the lack of any time pressure in Arkham Knight, despite the fact that people get kidnapped and you’re supposed to be in a rush. Feel free to explore Gotham however you like, the developers seem to say, and there’s a lot of weird stuff hidden there!

The reason why I’m even playing this comes from a combination of cheap price (14 USD) and the recommendation of friends who also played it – specifically, M. Josh Cauller and Bryan Hall. Usually our interests don’t align on video games in general – I like my challenging Japanese games, Josh likes his indie stuff + stealth games, and Bryan’s taste swing from here to there (though Uncharted and The Last of Us are obvious favorites). Once Brandon, our TGU mod, also told me it was good, I kinda had to see what the hype was about in Theology Gaming University – sure enough, I can’t say I am disappointed at all.

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Also, whoever made this casting choice is the best!

All this is to say I’m really enjoying Arkham Knight, and I am somewhat surprised that it’s actually fun enough that I want to explore and examine things in the world. I do enjoy unexpected surprises! And God tells us to expect such things in our life, as we know from countless stories where God intervenes in both the Bible and real life (and sometimes via our friends). Video games might be a small microcosm of that wonder, but they are no less interesting! Just reading in Exodus 6-7, you know everyone emphasizes Moses’ insecurity, but I found one line in particular very interesting (in bold):

28 Now when the Lord spoke to Moses in Egypt, 29 he said to him, “I am the Lord. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you.”

30 But Moses said to the Lord, “Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”

What does this mean, exactly? I don’t know, other than to say that God’s ways can make great people out of those who do not personally think themselves great, or ever expected them to be thought of in that way. How does one make a man who stutters intimidating to the ruler of a country with dynasties, even at that time, stretching to almost a thousand years? Only God can do that, and we can certainly say that came as a surprise to pretty much everybody. I’m sure you can think of similar events in your life – I sure can. Also, it’s really to Moses’ credit that, while he offers a ton of excuses, he still goes through with it. He has no idea what to expect the first time, and then God sends him out again, right back into a bad situation (that, of course, only God can extricate him from). He was clearly willing to do whatever God asked, and whatever popped up – and that is why we remember him even now.

Welcome the surprises – good or bad, they can offer a big change, and God tells us to expect them!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.